Jerry Mitchell was a 32-year-old Broadway hoofer who caused a sensation every night by dancing almost naked in “The Will Rogers Follies” when he had an idea: shake his naked ass for a good cause.
It was 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Mitchell recruited seven fit fellow dancers from other Broadway shows, and on a rainy Sunday night at Splash, a Chelsea gay club that has since closed, they took turns stripping down at the bar to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity. Fight AIDS. Two shows and a tray of tequila shots later, the budding strippers had raised $8,000—and the Broadway Bares burlesque spectacle was born.
“There were people who didn’t know why we were using a comic show to raise money for AIDS,” Mitchell, who is now a Tony Award-winning director and choreographer, said in a telephone interview. “It came from a place of innocence,” he said, and of scarcity: He didn’t have the money to attend major AIDS charity events, “but I had the drive and desire to help my community.”
Broadway Bares became a hit, growing into one establishment after another and getting more and more polished, until “we weren’t just a benefit,” Mitchell said. “We were a Broadway show.” On Sunday, that show will celebrate its 30th anniversary at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan, with performances at 9:30 p.m. and midnight.
Putting together the event — involving more than 500 volunteer theater performers, including performers, designers and stage managers, many working on current Broadway shows — is a complex and frenetic game of logistics, topped off by a final rehearsal sprint in which the entire, one- night-only production comes together in a matter of days.
During one of those rehearsals this week, at a studio near Times Square, nearly 30 dancers were spinning, kicking and pretending to take their pants off. Laya Barak, the director of this year’s show and a creator of the opening track, reminded everyone to “keep it sharp” and “reach from the shoulder.” More urgent, however, was the choreography of clothes. “Whatever your strippable is should travel with you,” she told a group, which meant carrying away their discarded layers. Other items had to be given to other dancers or thrown off the stage.
“Are you wearing a jock or a G-string?” she asked a dancer for his clothes for the show, who exposes a lot but stops with full frontal nudity. He wasn’t sure; costumes were still in the works and wouldn’t be ready until Saturday.
That meant that Collin Heyward, the lead dancer in another piece, and his castmates wouldn’t practice taking his clothes off until the day before the opening. During rehearsal, Heyward, who made his Broadway debut in February in “The Lion King,” attacked the hip-hop choreography with confidence, but admitted he was concerned about stripping. “It has to be seamless,” he said. “That’s an extra pressure.”
With ten dance routines, each with its own choreographer, Broadway Bares is a high-profile platform for emerging dance makers. The routines use a variety of styles, including hip hop, Latin dance, ballet and aerial arts, often merged into new combinations. But burlesque remains at the heart of the artistic ethos and attitude.
“Burlesque isn’t just about being naked,” Mitchell said. “It’s about being funny. The humor is the heart.”
Still, the endgame gets naked. And that has its complications.
The ‘lead strips’, as the dancers pictured are called, can have as many as five layers to remove. The first is easy, like a hat or coat. “Then it gets a little tricky,” says Nick Kenkel, who has been involved with the show for nearly 20 years and is now an executive producer. A T-shirt can be torn away (prepared with a small cut to make it easier to tear), followed by dancer pants, but “you have to do it so that the tight boxers underneath don’t come loose,” he said. †
Taking care of such fragile costumes and perfecting their precisely timed removal is a new skill for dancers who are more used to focusing on counting than throwing clothes away. “If you don’t pull hard enough, it can ruin the strip,” said Jonathan Lee, associate director and one of the Broadway Bares choreographers.
That’s where the costume designers come in, with their tricks and tools to create clothes that are “comfortable to dance in but won’t break at the wrong time,” said designer Sarah Marie Dixey. Quick-rig suits use a variety of fasteners, each with advantages and disadvantages. Dixey called himself “an anti-velcro person”, adding: “I love snaps and magnets. They don’t really get caught up in anything.” From the artist’s perspective, there was a consensus: “Snaps,” Lee said. “Always snaps.”
Accidents are inevitable, but “these are people who do this all the time,” Dixey said. “Not necessarily stripping, but standing on stage and being able to solve problems in the moment.”
Mechanics aside, stripping was “an artistic challenge for me,” said Aubrey Lynch II, a former dancer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and “The Lion King,” who appeared in several early Broadway Bares shows and now dean and director. trained at the American Ballet Theater. Despite some initial hesitation, Lynch said what he experienced on stage was freedom — which “added another layer of performance to my toolbox and strangely boosted my self-esteem.”
That’s a lesson Mitchell likes to teach for artists. He sees undressing on stage not as a vulnerable act, but as an empowerment. “You’re at the wheel,” he tells the dancers, reminding them that “the audience is on your side. They’re rooting for you. If you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.”
The Broadway Bares routines, lasting three to four minutes, convey a mini-story and are inspired by things like Greek myths and board games. Some choreographers have also used the dance to comment on social issues.
In this year’s production titled “XXX” – a nod to both the age and naughtiness of the show – Lee rediscovered a superhero song from the 2002 event featuring characters like Black Panther (danced by Heyward) and Shang-Chi with dancehall -music, Afro beats and steps. “I wanted to honor what we’ve won over the past 20 years,” he said.
While the inaugural Broadway Bares featured only well-toned, cisgender men, the following year’s event also featured women. Subsequent iterations have continued with transgender performers, disabled dancers, and all expressions of sexuality. “We’ve even had straight performers,” Mitchell joked. (For all representations on stage, however, the audience remains mostly gay men.)
When Jessica Castro was invited to create a dance this year, she knew she wanted to embrace body positivity. She cast her star Akira Armstrong, a curvier dancer and the founder of the Pretty Big Movement dance company. “It’s about celebrating all backgrounds, all body shapes, all types,” Castro said, adding that she thought stripping was an act of agency. “It’s the shedding of all these ideals, all these constructs that society has imposed on us.”
Over the 30 years of Broadway Bares shows, AIDS has become a manageable condition, especially for those with access to health care and preventative medicines. But the devastation it wreaked on New York’s tight-knit theater scene is a part of Broadway history intertwined with the show’s mission.
The event is “both a fundraiser and an educational opportunity,” said Tom Viola, the Broadway Cares executive director who attended the first Bares at Splash. (It has raised more than $22 million to date for Broadway Cares to support health and social services for entertainment professionals, both local and national, critical during the coronavirus pandemic.)
As part of the rehearsal period, the organization is helping dancers, most of whom haven’t experienced the worst of the AIDS epidemic, “understand the anger, grief, loss and stigma that first propelled us into action,” it said. Viola. During this week’s rehearsal, dancers were provided with profiles of beneficiary organizations and encouraged to step up their own online fundraising efforts.
And while Barak deals with all the usual elements of directing a show of this magnitude, she also asks, “How do we keep that flame going in the future to raise money for Broadway Cares and continue this tradition of community? ?”
But meanwhile, back at rehearsal, she was ready for a new run.
“Get off the pants strip!” she screamed.